As the dispute over Iran’s seizure of British sailors continues to twist and turn, what may have been an isolated incident at the outset is quickly developing into yet another move in the geopolitical chess game between the West and Iran.
The incident took place on March 23 in a disputed waterway between Iraq and Iran. Fifteen British sailors were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and after a few short days of quiet diplomacy, both the British and Iranian governments resorted to fighting their case in public—a move that significantly reduces the chance of a quick and smooth resolution to the dispute.
From the outset, the British authorities have insisted in stark categorical terms that the sailors were in Iraqi and not Iranian waters. Last Wednesday, the British produced GPS coordinates to support their claim, even though the coordinates were from a helicopter that London says hovered over the Indian ship that the sailors had inspected, and not the GPS coordinates of the sailors themselves.
Iran was quick to produce its own evidence. The GPS unit of one of the British sailors, confiscated by the Iranian authorities, shows that the British were not only in Iranian waters at the time of the incident, but that they had crossed over into Iranian waters on five earlier occasions as well, according to Tehran.
Whether the British were in Iranian waters or not—and whether the Iranians believe the British were in Iranian waters or not—Tehran seems to be using the incident to regain leverage over the West in the confrontation over its nuclear program and its rising power and influence in the Middle East.
Much indicates that both Iran and the United States have come to recognize that it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid some sort of diplomatic confrontation. This is particularly problematic for the George W. Bush administration, which for several years has adamantly opposed the idea of talking to Tehran.
The sudden realization of the near-impossibility of avoiding real diplomacy caused much anxiety in the Bush administration earlier this year. Washington had no shortage of contingency war plans with Iran—but no contingency plans for diplomacy, and consequently no preparation for such negotiations.
So when the Iraq Study Group and Congress pushed the White House to recognize the need for diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, the Bush administration balked. It lacked leverage to negotiate with Iran, it said.
"Frankly, right at this moment there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us and so in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained. "The only reason to talk to us would be to extract a price, and that’s not diplomacy, that’s extortion."
If the United States lacked leverage over Iran, the answer lay in gaining that leverage. Instead of accepting the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation to open talks with Iran, the Bush White House sought to increase the pressure on Iran to gain leverage—in any way possible.
On December 24, 2006, U.S. troops in Iraq arrested several Iranian officials—of whom at least two were diplomats. A few weeks later, an office the Iranians say was a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan was raided. Another five Iranians were detained there. They are still held by the United States, and Tehran has had no access to them.
In addition, Ali Reza Asgari, a senior Iranian official who served in the cabinet of former President Mohammad Khatami, went missing in Turkey in February. His family and authorities in Tehran say he was kidnapped by the Israelis. The United States says he defected.
Whether the arrested Iranians were diplomats or not and whether Asgari defected or was kidnapped, in two short months, the detentions of the Iranians, the imposition of financial sanctions on Iran and the passing of two UN Security Council Resolutions has seemingly provided the United States with the leverage it was seeking. Washington is suddenly feeling confident and is hinting a vague willingness to talk to Tehran from its perceived position of strength.
In this context, Iran’s holding of the British sailors may serve as a signal to Washington that if seizing personnel from the other side is fair game for the sake of gaining leverage, then Iran can also play that game.
Rather than an act of desperation resulting from the onslaught of Western pressure, as some in Washington have interpreted Iran’s actions, the arrest of the British sailors may have been a calculated measure to fight fire with fire—but without targeting the United States directly, which surely would have caused things to escalate out of control.
The revelation of what Tehran says in the second letter by the sole female sailor among the Brits, Faye Turney, seems to support this interpretation. The letter concludes with a call for British troops to leave Iraq. "Isn’t it time for us to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?" it said.
The letter’s linking of the seizure of the sailors with the larger political disputes in the region lends support to the interpretation that Iran is—at least at this stage of the dispute—seeking to regain the leverage it lost when the United States began targeting Iranian officials in Iraq.
Iran may feel justified in responding to Washington’s pressure tactics by targeting British troops in the narrow waterways between Iraq and Iran. But it’s difficult to see an end to this duel for leverage. If Iran gets the upper hand, Washington may further raise the stakes and embark on a new set of provocative actions. And if Washington regains the edge over Iran, chances are that Tehran will respond in kind.
As each side increases the stakes in an effort to gain the upper hand in a potential future negotiation, tensions in the region increase, as does the risk for an uncontrollable escalation. Rather than improving their negotiation positions, both sides are closing the diplomatic window through this risky game of one-upmanship.
Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliances—The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007). He is also president of the National Iranian American Council.